Gordon Pirie

Gordon Pirie was world record holder for 5000m and 3000m in 1956. The Guinness Book of Records attributes to him the record for most miles ever run by a human being. In his book, ‘Running Fast and Injury Free’ Pirie states that he ran 240,000 miles in 45 years. He also states that he suffered only a few injuries that stopped him from training. His achievements and ideas have been the main driving force behind my belief that it is possible to run more efficiently (i.e. run with lower energy consumption and fewer injuries per Km) by developing the correct technique. My article ‘The Mechanics of Efficient Running’ owes a huge amount to Pirie, though I do not agree fully with every statement that he makes.

In this post I will summarize the main points about running style made by Pirie in Chapter 2 of his book, pointing out why I agree with him when I do, and presenting the reasons for my doubt where I am sceptical. After each quote, I give the relevant page number from his book, in brackets. Further explanation of my own comments is given in my article ‘The Mechanics of Efficient Running’ (see the side bar of this blog). In a subsequent post I will summarize the points he makes in Chapter 3. Here are the style points from Chapter 2 presented in the order they occur in the book.

You must become conscious of the necessity of running properly and take steps towards developing correct technique. The best training in the world is useless unless proper technique is employed’ (p15). It is possible to run fast with poor technique but the risk of injury is high.

Shoes.. with heavily padded heel ..make correct technique impossible’ (p16). Heel padding prevents effective transfer of the energy of impact to the longitudinal arch.

over-balance forward .. you should begin to run’ (p16) Overbalancing initiates an automatic protective reflex forward swing of the leg. A small degree of overbalancing is useful for promoting lift-off from stance, but potentially dangerous as it will lead to accelerated rotation about the horizontal axis which is wasteful of energy and risks injury.

‘run .. with very light quick steps’ (p16) Rapid cadence is essential to ensure a fairly short airborne time per stride, thereby minimizing inefficient gravitational free fall (see illustrative calculations in the side bar). Rapid cadence also promotes a short time on stance, which minimizes harmful gravitational torque. Foot fall should be largely driven by gravity to prevent excessive ground reaction forces.

By keeping his knees flexed and landing on the ball of the foot on each step and with the foot beneath the body, the runner will spring along very quietly’ (p16) Slight knee flexion on landing minimizes jarring of the body and promotes storage of energy in the quadriceps. Placing the foot beneath the body prevents wasteful and damaging braking on each step. A quiet footfall indicates effective absorption of the energy of impact by muscles and ligaments. I am doubtful about the mental image evoked by the phrase ‘spring along’ as it is important to minimize vertical motion – though Pirie subsequently makes this point clear.

The runner will generate more power and cover more ground with each stride by taking advantage of the springyness and power of the muscles in the feet and forelegs and well as the thighs (p16)’ Correct foot fall will store the energy of impact in the ligaments and muscles of the foot, the calf and the quadriceps, and this can be recovered at lift off.

‘The runner’s tempo should be at least three steps per second’ (p16) Rapid cadence is essential as discussed above. Observation of elite athletes demonstrates that most employ a cadence of 180 strides per minute or higher.

Do not look down…don’t lean forwards’ (p17) Keeping the head pointing forwards and the trunk upright minimizes wasteful and potentially damaging rotation of the body around the horizontal axis, though, as pointed out above, a very small amount of lean, from the ankles rather than the waist, promotes a reflex swing of the leg, which can help lift-off from stance.

The arms should be held close to the body with the elbows bent at an acute angle (less than 90 degrees). ..The forwards and backwards strokes of the arms should form a quick sharp jabbing motion….The result is increased efficiency and greater speeds…Keep your arm action vigorous and compact’ (p17) The legs and arms naturally move with a reciprocal action to maintain balance. Reinforcing the association of a compact arm action with a compact leg action by regular drilling can be beneficial. Proprioceptive feedback from the arms to the brain is stronger than feedback from the legs. If arms and legs are well coordinated, good form might be monitored better though awareness of arm action.

The runner will no longer feel compelled to stride out – that is to throw the feet and legs forward in an exaggerated effort…. Over-striding is the most common technical affliction of runners, and one of the most dangerous.’ (p18). According to Newton’s first law of motion, no propulsive force is required to maintain a constant velocity on a horizontal surface in the absence of wind resistance. The practical consequence is that muscular effort to drive the body forwards is likely to waste energy and increase the risk of injury.

For more information about Gordon Pirie, see the Gordon Pirie Resource Centre website maintained by John Gilbody, at http://www.gordonpirie.com


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